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Reviews: From Systematic to Narrative: Literature Review


We have all been writing essays, critiques and literature reviews since junior high.  These writing exercises prepared you to take on the task of writing a formal literature review, which you may have done as an undergraduate.  A literature review, or lit review, is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. Often, a lit review is embedded as part of a larger essay or thesis or dissertation or it may stand on its own. 

Your purpose is to:

  1. demonstrate your scholarly ability to identify relevant information and to outline existing knowledge by providing a thorough knowledge of previous studies and introducing seminal works
  2. help focus your own research topic, questions, or issue by providing a conceptual framework for your research and indicating potential directions for future research
  3. suggest previously unused or underused methodologies, designs, quantitative and qualitative strategies
  4. identify gaps in the research that your study is attempting to address, positioning your work in the context of previous research and creating a "research space" for your work
  5. evaluate and synthesize the information in line with the concepts that you have set yourself for the research
  6. produce a rationale or justification for your study 

As a piece of writing, the lit review must be defined by a guiding concept - your research objective or the problem or issues you are discussing.  What the lit review is NOT is just a descriptive list of material you have found on your topic.

The writing of a lit review lets the writer gain and demonstrate skills in two important areas:

  1. INFORMATION SEEKING: the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books
  2. CRITICAL APPRAISAL: the ability to apply principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies

A lit review is a piece of discursive (fluid, expansive) prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another.  Organize your lit review into logical sections that present themes or identify trends, including relevant theory.  The purpose of the review is not to present a bibliography of all the works published on the selected topic.  It synthesizes and evaluates the material according to the guiding concept of the thesis or research question.

Literature Review Resources

The PowerPoint file is used during the in-house and online Literature Review Express Training sessions.  You will need the PowerPoint program loaded on your computer to open the file.

If you open the file and the notes are not at the bottom of the slide, you might want to click on the VIEW tab and then on Notes Page icon in the Presentation Views box.  This will put the slide and the notes all on one page for easier viewing.

Starting the Review

Read, Read, Read some more.  In the beginning you will need to read quite broadly on the topic or issue you are going to research so that you will have an in-depth understanding of your topic and its field.  By reading broadly you will be able to identify gaps in the research, which may provide you with a niche for your own research.  Extensive reading will also give you the background to prove how your research will extend or enhance the studies already done.  Keep in mind that your lit review must  relate to and explain your research question.  You may find hundreds of sources that appear pertinent; however, once you have your question narrowed and refined then your reading will become narrower and you will only want to see information (journal articles, book or book chapters, gray material, web sites) that are on point.

Your lit review must accomplish four (4) essential tasks:

  1. be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing
  2. synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
  3. identify areas of controversy in the literature
  4. formulate questions that need further research

To help you accomplish these tasks, here are a series of questions to ask.

  1. Preparatory questions:  Will the reader find my literature review relevant, appropriate and useful?
  2. Identify your research question: What is the specific thesis, issue, problem or research question that my literature review helps to define?
  3. Identify and locate appropriate information: What type of literature review am I conducting?  Am I looking at issues of theory, methodology, policy, quantitative research or qualitative research?
  4. Inclusion/exclusion criteria: What is the scope of my literature review?  What types of publications am I using (journals, books, web sites, grey literature)?  What discipline am I working in (nursing, cancer research, dentistry)?
  5. Develop search strategies: How good were my information retrieval skills?  Has my search been wide enough to ensure that I have found all the relevant material but yet narrow enough to exclude irrelevant material?  Is the number of sources I've used appropriate for the scope and length of my paper?
  6. Read and critically evaluate the information that you locate: Have I critically analyzed the literature I use?  Do I follow through a set of concepts and questions, comparing items to each other in the appropriate way - have I mixed my apples and oranges?  Instead of just listing and summarizing items, do I assess them, discussing strengths and weaknesses?
  7. File and store your readings and notes: Use an effective method that lets you retrieve information quickly and easily.  It is important to know the information that you retrieved and where you stored it.  Using bibliographic software like EndNote, EndNote Web, or Reference Manager will help.
  8. Plan, organize and write critically about the literature you have located: Have I cited and discussed studies contrary to my perspective?  Is the language of the review appropriate to the intended audience?
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